Overshadowed by Bedard’s exploits, Fantilli primed for NHL draft after banner season

By Joshua Clipperton

Adam Fantilli was on the ice at a suburban rink just outside Detroit.

It was the summer of 2021, and the prospect was in talks with the University of Michigan about committing to its decorated NCAA program.

Fantilli – still a few months short of his 17th birthday – was going through a series of drills with a group of current and future NHL stars.

Quinn, Jack and Luke Hughes were out there. So was Cole Caufield. Matty Beniers, too.

The kid from Nobleton, Ont., didn’t look even the slightest bit out of place.

“A star,” Michigan head coach Brandon Naurato, a Wolverines assistant at the time, recalled thinking as he watched Fantilli. “Really impressed with how mature he was at such a young age.

“He fit right in.”

Fantilli is set to take another big step at Wednesday’s NHL draft in Nashville.

The six-foot-two, 195-pound centre is expected to hear his name called shortly after Connor Bedard – all but assured of going No. 1 to the Chicago Blackhawks – climbs onstage at Bridgestone Arena.

Projected to either end up selected second by the Anaheim Ducks or third by the Columbus Blue Jackets, Fantilli topped the NCAA in scoring with 30 goals and 65 points in 36 games as a freshman, led a young roster to an unexpected Frozen Four appearance and won the Hobey Baker Award as the top player in U.S. college hockey.

He also helped Canada win gold at both the world junior hockey championship and men’s worlds.

“Far exceeded (them),” Fantilli said of his expectations coming into the 2022-23 season. “Fortunate to get to play with a lot of phenomenal hockey players.”

Things, however, didn’t go according to plan for the 18-year-old – at least early.

Bedard and Fantilli were in a neck-and-neck conversation to be the top pick when Canada gathered ahead of the world juniors in December.

By the time the tournament was over, Bedard had rewritten record books with a breathtaking offensive performance, while Fantilli spent most of the event in a supporting role further down the lineup.

He didn’t sulk.

“Proud of his maturity and how he put the team first,” Naurato said of the draft’s No. 2-ranked North American skater. “We always talk about how that’s the right thing to do, but it doesn’t mean it’s easy.

“He still believed he could be the best player there, but to go out and own a different role and show that he could play up and down the lineup, that was really cool and a huge growing experience.”

Fantilli, who in most years would still have a realistic chance of going No. 1, said there’s no disappointment at being in the same draft as Bedard – a dominant force in the Western Hockey League this season.

“Deserves everything he’s getting,” Fantilli said of the 17-year-old Regina Pats centre. “There’s a lot of eyes on him … we’ve been in totally different situations.”

Michigan, meanwhile, saw a different player return from the world juniors in January.

“He had something to prove,” Naurato said. “Adam had that chip on his shoulder.”

Fantilli scored 19 goals and added 20 assists in 20 games to close out the season as his school made it to the national semifinals.

“Loved by all his teammates,” Naurato added. “And it’s not because he’s an elite hockey player.

“It’s how he treats people.”

That magical college season complete, Fantilli worked his way up the lineup on a Canadian roster populated by current NHLers at the world championships before scoring a dramatic winner against Latvia in the semifinals.

He hopes his versatility – a key attribute in the NHL, where stars are often asked to play in a number of situations – shone through on the international stage.

“I don’t have to be in that top role, necessarily, to be able to have an impact,” he said. “My physicality and compete is something that I pride myself on.”

Naurato said Fantilli told him he made a point of picking as many brains as he could in a veteran locker room led by Calgary Flames forwards Tyler Toffoli and Milan Lucic.

“He’s finding ways to self-teach and then self-evaluate through talking to other people,” Naurato said. “He’s obsessed to be the best at his craft, and he’s going to go earn it – doesn’t expect anything.

“That’s what makes him an elite player.”

NHL Central Scouting director Dan Marr said while Bedard is at a different level, the franchise that lands Fantilli will be ecstatic, likening the pair to Edmonton Oilers stars Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl.

“You’re not going to go wrong,” Marr said. “They’re both going to be phenomenal assets.”

Naurato said despite Bedard making headlines – and justifiably so – there’s no doubt where Fantilli thinks he should be picked at the draft.

“You have to have belief in yourself and some swagger,” he said. “Adam’s a humble kid, he’s respectful. But inside he’s a competitor. You have to believe you’re the best.

“You don’t say it out loud.”

Set to be forever linked with Bedard, Fantilli is also doing his best to be present for the final few curves on a path that took him from junior hockey and the NCAA south of the border to the cusp of being drafted.

“Me and Connor are completely different players,” he said. “Focused on myself and enjoy the day – you only get one draft.

“Try to be in the moment.”

It’s coming fast.